Some do's and don'ts
Political culture and obstacles to democracy in Iran
By Masoud Kazemzadeh
June 30, 2003
Democracy is a relatively new system of government. Except for
the brief existence of (partial) democracy in several Greek city-states
some 2,400 years ago, there has been no democracy anywhere until
the 18th century. About 2,500 years ago, the Persian Empire and
its able founder Cyrus the Great introduced the notion of liberties
in the ancient world, including full religious freedom. The rise
of Christianity in the 3rd century Roman empire destroyed religious
tolerance for non-Christians and dissident Christian sects. Many
dissident Christians had to escape persecution and found refuge
in tolerant Persia.
The rise of democracy can be traced to the process of Enlightenment and the undermining
of the absolutist ideas and monarchies in Europe in the past 300 years. Democracy
and freedom require many things. A system of government in which the people freely
and periodically elect the leaders is of prime significance. To the extent that
there are un-elected political institutions in a system, to that extent that
system is un-democratic.
Liberal democracy is a system in which the people
vote in free elections to fill the top positions in legislative
and executive branches,
while the rights of those holding a minority perspective is protected. There
are mores, ethos, and other values among the population which sustain democracy
In other words, there have been many instances of
a democratic system having been established, but the democratic
system was not
able to consolidate.
Another factor in the rise and consolidation of democracy is the existence
of democratic parties and leaders. In this article, I intend to
discuss some of
these factors in regard to Iran with the goal of helping increase the prospects
One of the factors which functions as a foundation for the rise and consolidation
of democracy is the relationship between the people and the leadership. I see
two main ethos: (1) absolutism and (2) pluralism. Absolutist ethos are based
on blind obedience and the concomitant use of force to repress those who dissent.
Pluralist ethos are based on human reason, relativity of truth, and the acceptance
of diversity of perspectives.
ON ABSOLUTIST ETHOS AND CULTURE
When people are socialized to blindly follow the leadership, the people are
socialized to blindly follow Leader X. Sooner or later Leader X makes mistakes.
and prevalence of the ethos of blind obedience gives rise to absolutist challengers
to Leader X. The opponent of Leader X, called Leader Y, claims Leader X had
it all wrong. If only people blindly followed him, then everything would be
This is how in much of the world one king, or religious leader, replaced incumbent
dictatorial leader in the past two thousand years.
In the past 300 years, along with the rise of capitalism and modernity, there
have been the rise of the Enlightenment thought and liberalism (e.g., John
Locke, Montesquieu, John Stuart Mill) in Europe. The Enlightenment period in
challenge the dominant Christian values.
In this article, I use the story of Abraham to show how this story has served
as a foundation of blind obedience for the past 2000 years, justifying absolutist
systems of governance in Europe and the Middle East.
In the Old Testament, there is the story of Abraham. Abraham could not have
a child, so God gave Abraham a son. The son's name was Isaac. In the story
the faith and fidelity of Abraham, God tells him to cut the throat of his son
Isaac. Then Abraham places a knife on his son's throat to cut it. At the last
second, an angle stops him and presents a ram instead. The story in Islam is
the same except it is Abraham's other son, Ishmael, Abraham is told by God
This story from the Jewish religion has been placed at the center of Islam.
Hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam. All the pilgrims have to go through
reenact step by step what Abraham had done. The pilgrims walk around the Ka'bah
(the House of Abraham) and then have to cut the throat of a sheep in the manner
Abraham had to cut the throat of his son.
There are two important questions which have significant impact on political
culture of those who have been socialized with the story of Abraham: What is
the goal (or purpose) of the story of Abraham? And, who benefits from propagating
the story of Abraham?
Initially those who wrote these stories (or myths) were the Jewish rabbis.
This story was so useful and powerful a tool for socializing the masses, both
Christianity and Islam adopted it as well. Islam raised this story to a central
socializing ritual as one of the five pillars of Islam.
Those who wrote this story had a purpose. The story says individuals confront
situations they do not understand. They have to blindly obey those in the positions
of power (religious, political). Individuals may not understand the reasons
why they are told to go to war and sacrifice their lives. This story says one
suspend his/her reason, love of children and blindly obey those in authority.
To question is to doubt; to doubt is to be what Islam calls "moshrek." So,
when a government orders fathers to send their sons to wars, fathers would have
a hard time questioning or objecting to the authority.
Abraham could have asked God for an explanation. If God could not give Abraham
a good reason why he should cut the throat of his son then a rational person
would disobey a bad order, but here the goal of the story is to socialize people
not to question those in authority.
After 2000 years, leaders still find this story so useful they continue to
socialize the children with this story. Both kings and religious leaders claim
appointed them to rule over his flock, so the authority of God is transferred
to them, and they constitute the authority on Earth.
Dictatorial leaders want their supporters to blindly obey them. In Iran, Mohammad
Reza Shah, Ruhollah Khomeini, Ali Khamanehi, and Masoud Rajavi, asked their
supporters to obey them blindly and not to question their authority. The Shah's
slogan was: "Khoda,
Shah, Mihan," [God, the King, Country]. The slogan of Khomeini's supporters
was: "Hezb Faghat Hezbollah, Rahbar Faghat Ruhollah," [the Sole
party is Hezbollah, the Sole Leader is Ruhollah]. The slogan of the supporters
Rajavi is: "Iran Rajavi, Rajavi Iran."
Mohammad Reza Shah regarded himself
as the "the Shadow of God on Earth," and publicly claimed he regularly
received messages from the Hidden Shia Imam and his life was saved numerous times
by the Shia Imams.
Khomeini's notion of rule is called "Velayat Faghih" [the
sovereignty of the Shia Clerics], which later was called "Velayat Motlagh
Faghih," [absolute rule of Shia Cleric] is based on Khomeini's argument
God has created all things and thus is the sovereign over all things; God transferred
his sovereignty to the Prophet Mohammad, after him to the Shia Imams, and during
the absence of the 12th Imam, sovereignty is exercised by the Shia clerics.
absolute leader of the People'e Mojahedin of Iran (PMOI), is called
by its organ, the equivalent to Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Prophet
Mr. Rajavi has
declared in Islam the role of leadership "nobovat" [prophethood]
is one of the three main principles of Islam, and he regards himself
to be this
Let's summarize the answer to our two questions. The purpose of the
story of Abraham is blind obedience is good and of divine nature; questioning
are bad. Follow the leader and do not question the wisdom of the leader.
The answer to the second question is that those dictatorial leaders
have reason and logic on their side benefit from this story. The story
of Abraham is embraced not only by those in power, but also by those
who want to replace the incumbent form of dictatorship with their form
Absolute dictatorship and blind obedience -- as well as absolute truths
and absolute morality -- are values which go together. The story of
not the only
major story which teaches blind obedience. The theme of blind obedience
runs through many stories in Abrahamic religions, such as the stories
and Eve and the killing of Prophet Lot's wife. In the story of Adam
and Eve, God
forbids them to eat from the "tree of knowledge of good and evil."
exchange for ignorance, God provides Adam and Eve the Garden of Eden
where they do not have to work. In this story, violating God's
command and seeking knowledge
is severely punished. In the story of Lot's wife, when God decides
to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, he orders Lot, his
wife and his daughters not
to look at the destruction. When Lot's wife disobeys God's command
and takes a mere peak, God kills her by turning her into a pillar
of salt. In the Quran
4:34, God tells men to beat up their wives if they [wives] disobey
ON PLURALIST ETHOS AND CULTURE
What sort of ethos are compatible with freedom and democracy? In
other words, what sort of ethos help the establishment and consolidation
of democracy? Freedom is for those who think differently. Freedom
ability to say
something which those in power do not like to hear. Freedom rests
of doubt and skepticism.
We are seldom certain of what the truth
is; therefore, we should allow all perspectives to be heard. Progress
someone says things which have not been said before. Our knowledge
is relative. We
continuously learn more and discard what we find out was inaccurate.
There are very few things
which are absolutely true. It is not easy for us to know what the
absolute truth is. We all have to use our judgement to evaluate
what we are
told. We have to
use reason, logic, and evidence before we accept a view and agree
to implement it.
Democracy means the particular person in power is there temporarily
until the people change him/her with another person. Democracy
is a system
in which power
is ultimately in the hands of the people. In a democracy, there
is no leadership-for-life such as a monarch, Vali Faghih, or President-for-life.
Some have argued
that one can have democracy co-exit with un- elected institutions.
is the US Supreme Court, and another is the institution of monarchy
in European democracies.
In a liberal democracy, an institution like the US Supreme Court,
may be created to check what the framers of their constitution
of the majority." The US Supreme Court is designed to be able to protect
the rights of the minorities from the tyranny of the majority. To make certain
that the Supreme Court itself would not become a tyrannical institution, many
safeguards have been put in place. The elected president nominates and the elected
Senate confirms the members. The number of the justices in the Supreme Court
is determined by the President and confirmed by the Senate. And the people can,
with super- majority rule, add constitutional amendments to reverse decisions
of the Supreme Court. Thus, the US Supreme Court is designed to protect the rights
of dissenting minorities from the tyranny of the majority, while making certain
that the court itself would not become a dictatorial institution.
The example of constitutional monarchies is of an entirely different
kind. First and foremost, Iranian Pahlavist monarchists, unlike
counterparts, have a horrendous history of brutal dictatorship.
Therefore, although one may
not fear the Windsors in Britain to impose their brutal dictatorship,
one has to be terribly naive not to fear the restoration of the
unrepentant Iranian monarchists.
The constitutional monarchies in Europe are, by and large, the
remnants of the obsolete historical legacies that hold little actual
Democracy is not a perfect system of government; there is no such
thing as perfect system of government. All human beings have made
in the future. There is no panacea to all social ills. We can only
muddle through. Through trial and error, leaders and followers
learn what works
and what does not. As situations and circumstances change, the
older solutions become useless, and the process of finding better
We can and should try to make our situation better. We cannot bring
harmony and absolute solutions.
If we want to see freedom and democracy in Iran, we should move
away from blind obedience, and from those who promote un-elected
This is not to say we are not absolutely certain of anything. The
absolute relativism of the post-modernists is wrong. We do know
the earth is
not flat. We do know
willful murder of an innocent five year old is wrong and immoral.
Not all explanations are equally valid. There are good and bad
for judging is our mind, our rationality, our science, and our
A bit of skepticism is good; a whole lot of reason
is imperative. In
the prospects of democracy and freedom, we, the educated middle
Iranians inside Iran and outside Iran, have a major role to play:
we should promote
values and parties, and counter totalitarian values and parties.
There is, of course, a need for leadership and political parties
for the transition to democracy. The prospects of democracy increases
civil society become stronger. Political parties (along with free
press, labor unions,
professional associations) are among the most important of such
Democratic leadership is very different from dictatorial leadership.
Democratic leadership is open to criticism. Dictatorial leadership
closes off avenues
of criticism. Democratic leadership is open to a plurality of views,
and there is
a real competition for leadership positions at all levels. A dictatorial
leader selects and promotes those who are sycophants.
Our long and tortured history is full of one dictatorial group
or person opposing another dictatorial ruler. If we are to break
one dictator replacing
another dictator, we need to change the ethos and values which
give rise to dictatorial and totalitarian leadership and sheep-
to learn to stand
up for the rights of those with whom we disagree.
We have to stand
to all dictatorial groups and leaders (ruling fundamentalist regime,
monarchists, Mojahedin, Stalinists). This means we have to be willing
to pay the price of
dissent. Of course, our people have paid dearly in the past 100
years in resisting the brutal dictatorships of monarchists and
the number of individuals who are willing to stand up to authoritarian
lower the cost to each individual and the higher the likelihood
Democracy is not replacing one un-elected leader whom one hates
with one un-elected leader whom one likes. Democracy presupposes
parties and individuals
to freely compete for all positions of power. Freedom of expression
presupposes all individuals are allowed to express their opinions
is the people who, after hearing and listening to all sides, may
and change their views in a later election.
Blind obedience is the enemy of free thought and reason. Blind
obedience to any leader is supporting a dictatorial system. The
blind obedience is
not only promoted by the incumbent dictatorship (Velayat Motlagh
also by some in the opposition such as the Mojahedin, and the monarchists
(the slogan of some of whom is "Iran bedon-e Shah hargez").
Those groups such as monarchists, who advocate a leadership that
is for-life, would create an institution that by its very nature
of the will of the majority. Liberalism's mantra "power corrupts and absolute power
corrupts absolutely" is the basis of the liberal solution of checks and
balances and limited terms of office. The institution of monarchy, by its very
nature, is predisposed to dictatorship. As a friend once quipped, monarchy is
like malaria. The Europeans have found ways to control it. But if one does not
have it, it is unwise to get it and then try to control its harm.
The acceptance of plurality of views is a pre-requirement of democracy.
Democracy is based on the agreement that political differences
be resolved peacefully
and through going to the people for their votes. This requires
respect for the RIGHT
of others to hold opposing viewpoints and ideologies. Having as
part of one's cultural ethos, stories, and rituals which socialize
obedience have to be challenged.
The three Abrahamic religions -- Judaism, Christianity and Islam -- share
many values which have not produced democracy in any country in which its clerics
have assumed power. Democracy has emerged only in those polities in which there
has been a separation of religion and the state. Many competing interpretations
of Abrahamic faiths have emerged. One particular interpretation, usually referred
to as fundamentalist variety, hold views most hostile to personal liberties and
The fundamentalists in all the Abrahamic religions maintain morality
is anchored in absolutes of right and wrong. These absolutes are
demarcated in the holy
books. The Ten Commandments, or the list of sins [gonah] and righteous
for example, tell the people what is moral and what is immoral.
Therefore, punishments and rewards are decided upon through divine
the fundamentalists intend
to make state laws.
In order to have freedom and democracy, we need to have several
preconditions. It is imperative to have separation of religion
and state. Moreover,
we have to socialize our people to develop independent critical
and avoid blind obedience. We have to begin practicing pluralism,
skepticism. Cultures are not static; they change and evolve. We
human beings determine our own destiny. There is no reason to remain
It appears to me we are living through a major transformation of
human consciousness. The economic structures of human existence
from one which encouraged
conformity and blind obedience to a new and dynamic socioeconomic
system which beautifully rewards human creativity and terribly
the transition to the post-industrial information age, the gap
between scientific modern societies and pre-scientific traditional
will widen. Those
individuals and societies which adopt scientific, open, critical,
inquisitive mind sets and
cultures will prosper. Those individuals and societies which adopt
closed, traditional, superstitious, backward authoritarian mind
sets and cultures
will become poorer
and poorer. Quoting Rosa Gomez Dierks, our era is the "Survival of the Smartest."
If Iran is to become free, democratic, modern, and economically prosperous, the
ethos of blind obedience has to be replaced with the ethos of critical free debate.
A culture's heritage may include contradictory ethos and values:
some aspects of the culture may promote blind obedience, while
pluralism. Our culture includes icons such as the 10th century
poet Ferdowsi whose heroic
stories and myths articulated a secular Iranian nationalism for
a millennia, and Khayyam whose existentialist poems are based on
These aspects of Iranian culture are secular, nationalist
and thus undermine the
monopoly of Islam as the sole determinant of culture for Iranians.
That explains why despite
much efforts, the fundamentalist regime in Iran has been unable
to uproot the pre-Islamic celebrations like Nourooz [Iranian
[Festival of Fire during the last Wednesday of the year], Mehregan
[Autumn Celebration], and Shab-e Yalda [celebration of the longest
night of the
Moreover, we have been able to produce several major democratic
movements in the past one hundred years. The constitutional revolution
produced the democratic Constitution of 1906. The democratic,
pluralist, and modernist
National Front, under the able leadership of Dr.
the government between April 1951 and August 1953. The National
by a coalition of reactionary forces which included the Shah
and high ranking Shia clerics and was organized and led by
bankruptcy of fundamentalist
rule in Iran, the people are searching for ways to bring a
In addition, we are fortunate that our country possesses secular,
democratic parties which could lead us towards democracy. The
is comprised of groups that advocate civil liberties, pluralist
of law, separation
of religion and the state, a republican form of government,
They include political parties such as the
National Front [Jebhe
Melli Iran], Iran Nation Party [Hezb Mellat Iran], Glorious
Frontiers Party [Hezb
Gohar], Popular Republicans of Iran [Jomhurikhahan Melli
Iran], Iran Futurist Party [Hezb Ayande Negar], and groups such
Nationalist Association of
University Students and Graduates, the Writers' Association.
The existence of secular cultural icons, pre-Islamic cultural
practices, a history of secular democratic parties and politics,
and the prominence
and groups in present-day Iran increase the likelihood of
a transition to secular democracy in Iran. A discussion on
democratization and what ethos decreases those possibilities,
could make this transition more likely and more smooth.
Kazemzadeh, Ph.D., is Assistant
Professor of Political Science at Utah
Valley State College.
 Arthur Goldschmidt, Jr., A Concise History of the
Middle East, 7th edition (Boulder: Westview Press, 2002), 19-21.
writes: "Many foreign
scholars were attracted to Persia, a tolerant kingdom in which Nestorian Christians,
Jews, and Buddhists could worship and proselytize freely. Driven from a bigoted
Byzantine Empire in the fifth century, Nestorian savants found refuge at the
legendary Persian academy of Jundishapur, a center for the preservation of Hellenistic
culture -- indeed, the humanistic heritage of the whole ancient world. Scholars
and students came form all parts of Europe and Asia to teach and study there,
unhindered by racial prejudice, religious dogma, or political restrictions." In
the 4th and 5th centuries the Roman Empire had declared Monophysites (known as
Copts in Egypt, and as Jacobites in Syria), Arians and Nestorians as heretics
and were suppressed sometimes very brutally.
 I use the term "story" which is more neutral than the term "myth." Many
scientists believe that many stories in the Old Testament are myth. For example,
see: Teresa Watanabe, "Doubting the Story of Exodus," in Los Angeles
Times, April 13, 2001.
 See the Shah's own words in his interview with Oriana Fallaci in Oriana Fallaci,
Interview with History (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1976), 267-269.
 On the People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran [PMOI] see:
Ervand Abrahamian, The Iranian Mojahedin, (New Haven: Yale University Press,
1989); Peter Waldman, "Fading
Force: Anti-Iran Guerrillas Lose Disciples but Gain Friends in Washington," in
Wall Street Journal, October 4, 1994; Masoud Kazemzadeh, Islamic Fundamentalism,
Feminism, and Gender Inequality in Iran Under Khomeini, (Lanham: University Press
of America, 2002). The PMOI's website is: iran.mojahedin.org.
 My discussion on freedom is based on John Stuart Mill, "On Liberty."
 Rosa Gomez Dierks, Introduction to Globalization: Political and Economic
Perspectives for the New Century (Chicago: Burnham Inc., Publishers, 2001).
 Iran National Front is the largest and oldest secular pro-democracy
in Iran. INF operates both inside and outside Iran: jebhemelli.net and
Glorious Frontiers Party is new nationalist party operating both inside and outside
Iran: marzeporgohar.org. The Popular
Republicans of Iran is a secular democratic party: iran-jommelli.com.
Party operates outside Iran: http://home6.swipnet.se/~w-62905/.
includes liberal democrats exiled in Europe: melliun.org/.
This group includes several pro-democracy university student groups operating
inside Iran: daneshjooyan.org. The
main Iranian human rights
group, which operates outside Iran: mehr.org.
National Democratic Front of Iran is a left-of-center democratic socialist party,
operating in exile: azadi-iran.org.
The Nationalist-Religious Alliance operates inside Iran and includes many older
(who left the Iran Liberation Movement) and some younger activists.
They are a liberal Islamist group. See: mellimazhabi.org.
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